This story first appeared on VA’s Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System’s website.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Seaman 1st Class Eugene Woodrow Wicker, only 20 years old, was serving aboard the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their infamous surprise attack.
Wicker, a radio operator, was on duty that Sunday morning and sounded the alarm of the Japanese attack. But nine Japanese torpedoes quickly capsized the battleship and Wicker was one of 429 Sailors and Marines from the USS Oklahoma crew to die.
By the time the military finally raised USS Oklahoma in 1946, remains of the crew could not be identified, and were buried in Pearl Harbor.
“We have waited so long for him to be home”
Thanks to modern DNA technology, Wicker’s remains were identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. On Aug. 3, after more than 76 years, Wicker’s remains returned to Oklahoma.
The following day, the native of Coweta, Oklahoma was laid to rest with full military honors at Fort Gibson National Cemetery in Fort Gibson.
Renee Miller, Eugene Wicker’s great niece, attended the service at Fort Gibson on Aug. 4 and said she wished her dad and grandmother could have witnessed Wicker returning home.
“The service was wonderful,” said Miller. “I can’t believe the full military service. Nanny would have been so proud. She was real close to him, and mourned him until she died. I just wish my dad could be here to see this.”
Miller said Wicker’s homecoming means the world to the family.
“He’s going to live on,” said Miller. “Especially now that he’s home. We have waited so long for him to be home.”
Fort Gibson National Cemetery staff proud to serve
William Rhoades, director, Fort Gibson/Fort Sill National Cemeteries, said the service was humbling for him, especially since he spent time in Pearl Harbor during his U.S. Coast Guard career.
“For anyone who has ever gone in and out of Pearl Harbor, manned the rails and paid their respects to the USS Arizona and battleship row, it’s a quiet, somber experience that you never forget,” said Rhoades.
Clyde Settlemyre, a caretaker at Fort Gibson National Cemetery, also served in Hawaii with the U.S. Marine Corps.
“Today’s service kind of comes full circle for me because in 1982, I had the privilege of being stationed in Hawaii,” said Settlemyre. “We pulled into Pearl Harbor on deployments. It’s just a great honor to be here for the family.”
Settlemyre, who assists in burials and maintains the grounds and graves at Fort Gibson National Cemetery, said his profession as a caretaker is the greatest honor of his life.
“Every one of these men and women are heroes,” said Settlemyre. “That’s why I came to work here. I also have family members that are buried here. It’s just an honor.”
Rhoades also said it is a great honor to serve the more than 21,000 heroes that are interred at Fort Gibson National Cemetery.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else for the rest of my career,” he said. “It’s an honor, every day. When you wake up in the morning and you come in and you have the sun coming in over the east, you have dew on the grass, the headstones are all aligned, it’s just an incredible feeling.”
Nate Schaeffer is a public affairs specialist with the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System.